Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #3, Spring & Summer 1999]

Commie Dearest

Digressing diatribes lifted from the Madison Insurgent 1988 - 91.

Jan Levine Thal
[Probably the most frequently asked question about these columns over the two-plus years that I wrote them was, "How many of the questions did you make up?" The answer is, about half -- I actually received about half of these letters. But the other half were not really mine, either. Most of them derived from conversations with friends, enemies, co-workers, and relatives and often hit enough chords to tick off someone, for which I was truly grateful. So they are yours, and you are thanked for them and welcome to them.

I firmly believe that any endeavor is collective and this one is no exception. I must first thank the many members of the collective that produced the Madison Insurgent; some loved the column, some hated it but it was a product of constructive revolutionary struggle and you don't get a lot of that these days. -- JLT.]

On Revenge
January 15 - 28, 1990

Dear Jan,

A man I have been seeing for two years suddenly ended our relationship in September, without explanation and without discussion. We had been planning to move in together and he was rather close with my 11-year-old daughter. Since he left, I have been in therapy for my own grief and in another therapeutic arrangement with my daughter to deal with her sense of loss (her father lives abroad and is not much use in any case).

At first I blamed myself, thinking that such a fine, progressive, thoughtful, settled adult man (45 years old) must have had a good reason for such arbitrary and capricious behavior. Eventually, as is apparently standard in the grieving process, I became angry with him instead of myself. Recently I began a childish but satisfying campaign of annoying him. For example, I signed him up at his office address for Modern Maturity and Bowling Today (no signatures needed) so that he has to explain to his secretary or esteemed colleagues that he really didn't subscribe to these dimwit periodicals. I've also put him on the mailing list for various embarrassing organizations.

My friends think it's all right to harass him, and have even offered to help out by calling his house when they know there's a woman there and hanging up when he answers and other equally sophomoric tactics. But they disapprove of my signing him up for groups (like an Alzheimer's support group) that have a progressive or liberal thrust because, they say, I'm making these good groups pay for his assholism.

What do you think?
Nancy from NJ

Dear New Nan,

Therapy itself is very controversial among Left and progressive forces, in part because of the persistence of an old line that the purpose of therapy is to force the individual to conform to an oppressive society. I believe, however, that with the assistance of a progressive, feminist therapist who really understands the negative impact of the social structures on human relations, one can make substantial progress in the struggle against pain.

I also can empathize with the childish pleasure one can derive from a nuisance campaign against a former lover who has wronged one -- although I'm obliged to ask whether you really believe it hurts him in any way. Perhaps it's satisfying because of how you imagine he will react. If so, it seems to me that concentrating so much psychic energy on your ex gives him a lot of power he does not deserve.

If, however, you are convinced of the usefulness of this behavior, I would tend to agree with your friends that you should not inflict Mr. Wrong on some well-intentioned organization that has better things to do with its time than deal with irritated non-members.

Of course, if you collect the pamphlets and put them in the mail to him, you aren't wasting someone else's labor. A former colleague of mine sent endless self-help material to his brother's lover, listing his brother's name as an adult bedwetter. And, of course, there are a number of right-wing and religious organizations who deserve to have their time wasted and whose mailings should embarrass the guy. (If they don't, why were you involved with him?) Try the TV evangelists, the National Rifle Association, the KKK, the Nazis and various magazines devoted to exploitative sexism. Maybe you could send these to him at his mother's address.

But what about the value of your time? I'd suggest you might find it more fulfilling to write letters to the mainstream newspapers expressing your anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal views on current events. If the letters are printed, you can take satisfaction in opposing the disinformation thrust of mainstream media, a good thing in itself. Undoubtedly some helpful friend of your ex will bring such a letter to his attention and maybe it will embarrass him that you are doing useful things with your life while he's wallowing in his own self-protection. (Given the nature of patriarchy as a crippler of men, I wouldn't count on it. But a few of them turn out to be OK guys, so one can always allow for a little hope. But, I digress.)

* * *

On Miniskirts
September 25 - October 8, 1989

Dear Jan,

Maybe you can settle an argument. My friend thinks it's anti-feminist to wear a miniskirt. I say that one part of feminism is learning to suit yourself and not following any prescribed notions of how you should look or be. So I wear a miniskirt when I want. It makes me feel great that I have the kind of body that looks good in one. What's wrong with that?

Just Sign Me,

Dear Wonder Woman,

You will not find a fan of the miniskirt in this quarter. I believe that it's a symptom of capitalist patriarchy and that its purpose is to call attention to your potential as a sex partner rather than a personality.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not against women expressing their sexuality, nor do I find fault with self-decoration. For example, I'd be unopposed to makeup if society allowed men as well as women to wear it just for fun, and if it weren't tested on animals.

(I could enjoy makeup as purely recreational if women were not expected to wear it as part of a prescribed and oppressive dress code -- especially women in "pink collar" service/clerical jobs who might prefer to contribute their money to a worthy cause rather than to the billionaires in the cosmetics industry. But, I digress.)

Miniskirts, to my mind, have no value as clothing because they don't provide warmth and they aren't comfortable. So one must assume that their purpose is a kind of "decoration by omission." Less may be more in architecture, but in fashion it's more expensive.

You might ask what difference there is between miniskirts and shorts, since they probably involve about the same yardage of material and cover about the same inches of flesh. I think that the difference is one of social conventions -- shorts imply that a person is active, comfortable and practical. A miniskirt in this society at this time offers none of those signals and tends to draw attention to a woman's sexuality as a detached, separate entity.

I don't oppose physical attraction -- though I oppose it as the sole basis of a relationship between politically aware people -- but I decry the self-deception that says we feminists have appropriated the miniskirt, so that it no longer sends out messages that suggests we are sex objects. This is the same kind of idealist logic that inspired John and Yoko to declare, "The War is Over if You Want it," thousands of deaths before a peace treaty was signed.

It's nice that you have "the kind of body that looks good," but I would suggest that it's capitalist and patriarchal ideologies that would have us believe we can read a person's worth from their body shape or their inherited set of bones. You might find their stands on gender, race, class, and foreign policy to be better indicators. Or their taste in music or literature. Or recreation. Once I became interested in a suitor just because that person used a portion of leisure time to do the puzzle in The Nation.

As to the notion of "suiting yourself" (was that an intended pun?), I think it's fine you don't sacrifice yourself on the altar of patriarchy or capitalism. But when it comes to mean, "Me first," it can be cultural imperialism on a personal level. Only you can sort out what it means to serve the masses while not screwing yourself, but I, for one, believe that wearing a miniskirt is not part of that process.

* * *

On the Sixties
October 9 - 22, 1989

Dear Jan,

Just about every day someone tells me they're "sick of this 1960s nostalgia." Usually this is followed by a diatribe against the arrogance of people who consider themselves revolutionary but didn't make revolution, or against boring rock music, or against ugly fashions, or whatever other ills of the period that at any given moment seem to be the fault of my generation.

I'm proud that I was a young person during the 1960s, that I participated in the anti-war movement, and was able to support the Black and women's liberation movements. I have, however, stopped talking about it unless someone asks me directly. I know you are from that generation -- what do you think?

Yours in solidarity,
Mark R.

Dear Mark,

I wish people would stop talking about "being from the 1960s" as if it were akin to "being from Jim Bakker's family." Not long ago a woman who described herself as "from the 60s" told me she used to hold some of the same beliefs I hold, but that she went to a therapist and now she feels much better. Today, needless to say, she's a New Age yuppie. What's that old adage about the cure being worse than the disease?

As to the boring rock question, I agree with Nicole Hollander, who asks, "What's their legacy? Bon Jovi?" And fashion is always ugly in retrospect; that's what makes the fashion industry rich.

Nonetheless, this is a thorny issue for which I have no easy answers. Should you be proud to have been an activist? By all means. As the Black Panthers often repeated, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

Should we take credit for every progressive turn of events in the last 20 years? Should we accept blame for everything that worked out differently from the way we expected? I think not, but if you're into guilt please be my guest to taking responsibility for the failure of the ERA, takebacks in affirmative action, labor movement setbacks, and genocidal foreign policy decisions. These are all things you probably could have done more about and didn't.

On the other hand, if you need reminders of what it was like before the Civil Rights movement led us all into action, just focus on a few of the things that changed. And make no mistake that changes occurred through mass struggle, not because someone passed a law. A few examples are illegal abortion, grossly unequal pay for equal work, institutionalized homophobia on a grand wizard scale, and Jim Crow laws. (I learned to play basketball with "girls' rules," which assumed girls were too frail to dribble more than three times or to run the full court. One or two of us were too lazy; I doubt if that was gender related. But, I digress.)

If you want these things back, you need only sit around and complain about the 60s instead of, say, getting out and fighting for your rights.

For people who are genuinely curious about our psycho-emotional attachments to those times, I can recommend two novels that capture the spirit of the 60s better than any of the nonfiction I've read: Marge Piercy's Vida (about the Weather Underground) and John Sayles' Union Dues (about an above-ground collective in Boston).

I think those who are sick of the 60s generally fall into two camps: people who secretly wish they could have that much excitement in their own lives and people who are activists now and wish some of us old fogies would stop resting on our laurels (get off our butts) and do a little political work.

The second group has a point. There's a lot to be done -- and I don't mean going to nostalgia reunions, which are attended only by the people who can afford to go, thus frequently leaving out the activists who didn't become yuppies.

The first group should get a life and listen to some Gil Scott Heron. And for a real 60s fix, they might take a cue from a member of an even earlier generation of activists. It was Joe Hill, who sent out this message to his compatriots as he was about to be executed on a trumped-up charge: "Don't waste time mourning; organize."

* * *

On Sexual Harassment
October 28 - November 10, 1991

Dear Jan,

Your column (Oct. 14) about the sexism in progressive organizations is quite true from my experience. So-called progressive men, and even women, are not threatened by women who are hard-working, polite, and who defer to the more experienced political analysis of the mentors in the organization, who are usually men. My problem with all but a few organizations is this: I am an independent, educated, experienced, political woman in the process of constant change. In certain circles these qualities upset the sensibilities of established hierarchies. Intellectual, political women violate many progressives' innate belief in turf, who does what in the organization.

As long as women are non-threatening, we are accepted in progressive organizations, even welcome. Let us cease to be emotionally nurturing and intellectually deferential and we lose our usefulness within that organization.

Johanna V. Wittelsbach

Dear Visionary,

This is a true story: A friend named Anna, whom I knew in my Maoist days, had become politicized during the War in Vietnam and joined Students for a Democratic Society at her campus. A clever writer with a keen analysis of the system, her task in SDS became writing (and, of course, typing) speeches for the male chair to give at anti-war demonstrations. One day, round about 1969, she complained to the guy that it was unfair that he was always in the public eye, orating while she held the bullhorn, and that she thought it was "male chauvinist," as we said in those days. He rolled his eyes and said, oh alright, write a little something for yourself. So for the next rally, she wrote two speeches and held the bullhorn while he gave her first one. Then he took the bullhorn and went home. Needless to say Anna's Antiwar Wisdom II was lost to the world. Ok, maybe it wouldn't have stopped the war. But we don't know, do we? It most certainly was the end of her involvement in SDS. In the same period, all the women members of the one SDS chapter walked out and formed their own organization following an incident in which they criticized male privilege and one SDS officer replied, "You cunts just need to get laid." (This reminds me of another woman who, when called a "cocksucker" by a co-worker retorted, "It's none of your business what I do in my spare time." But, I digress.) Things are sometimes better today than they were then.

I should make it clear that while I believe every man in this society who wants to be respected by feminists must spend his life unlearning the privileges of patriarchy, I also believe some have progressed further with that struggle than others. Some of the people who liked that column you cited were men who had also encountered, and found difficult, the hierarchies you describe. And guys (I'd like to say you know who you are, but, unfortunately, you probably don't), I don't mean it's bad because it hurts our widdul fee-wings. I mean it's destructive to organizations, and it becomes a defining aspect of the work you take up in the work place and in the community.

Ultimately patriarchy undervalues more than half of the potential revolutionary forces. Fostering divisions among the people is counter-revolutionary. It's anti-working class. It feeds other oppressions. In the immortal words of my good friend and office buddy A.C., "It sucks."


Jan Levine Thal is a writer living in New York City. Before that she lived 16 years in Madison, Wisconsin, where she continues to be heard on WORT-FM with film reviews phoned in from Manhattan. She has been a political activist since she joined the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Her proudest accomplishment is co-raising her son, Jeremy, though she says Jeremy gets most of the credit for becoming a lovely, caring person.

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